No, Morgan Spurlock’s not hiding behind Klingon makeup or a superhero mask: you won’t see the documentary impresario in his new film “Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope,” which opens April 6, but his geek heart fills every frame.
After spending his youth fantasizing about what it would be like to one day attend San Diego’s annual Comic-Con International, the world’s largest gathering of comic book, sci-fi, fantasy, horror and pop culture aficionados, Spurlock ("Super Size Me," "30 Days") was finally able to realize his dream in 2009, while shooting segments of “The Simpsons’” 20th-anniversary special.
The documentarian instantly connected with the kookily passionate vibe that permeates the Con, and at the suggestion of no less than Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee, he quickly settled on making the center of nerd nirvana the subject of his next film.
Gaining unprecedented access, Spurlock bypassed his familiar technique of putting himself at the center of the on-camera action. Instead, he intimately focuses on a collection of smaller stories, both dramatic and comedic, playing out among real-life archetypes representing the Comic-Con faithful: two aspiring comic book artists showing off their work to publishers; an amateur costume designer trying to garner attention with her eye-popping creations; a longtime retailer of comic book back issues wrestling with the need to sell one of his most prized issues to keep his business afloat; a young fan nervously trying to pull off a very public proposal to the geek-girl of his dreams, and more.
Amid all this, Spurlock sprinkles in commentary from Con knowns (Lee, “Avengers” director Joss Whedon, Kevin Smith, Seth Rogen, Eli Roth and Ain’t It Cool News’ Harry Knowles among them) and unknowns alike. The director gives PopcornBiz and x-ray vision peek into the making of the movie.
This is a movie made for the obsessive by the obsessive, right?
I am such an obsessive, absolutely. I'm such an obsessive it's terrible, but it's great. That's the thing: there's not a lot of things that I really obsess about, but when I do, I REALLY do. I obsessed over 'Lost.' 'Battlestar Galactica’ – that reboot was one of the greatest things ever made. I was such a freak for that show. As a kid there were just things that I loved. I loved video games. I could not get enough. Why I loved Plastic Man I don't know, but God, I loved Plastic Man! I understand a lot of that passion and a lot of that drive. That's why I wanted to make sure that the people we followed, that we made them real people. I didn't want to create cartoons. I didn't want people to laugh at them. I felt like there had been a lot of movies where that's what it was, like a fly-on-the-wall freak show. That's not what it is. That's what people love to think that Comic-Con is, and it's not.
No one’s ever been granted this level of access to Comic-Con. How were you able to persuade them to give you free reign?
I don't think that they would've said yes to me had I not had the dream team on this movie. I think that Comic-Con would've been totally freaked out if I would've just come forward and said that I wanted to make this movie. They would've been, like, 'Oh, what's he going to do now? Who's he going to expose? What's he want to say? He's going to talk about the corporate influence over Comic-Con.' At the time when I first met with them Thomas Tull and Harry Knowles weren't even on board yet. It was literally the weekend. I met Stan Lee on Friday and Stan said, 'We should make a documentary about Comic-Con!' I said, 'Yes, we should – that would be amazing. We should definitely do that.' The next day I had breakfast with Joss Whedon, which was set up through my agent at CAA. By the next morning we’d kind of fleshed out a little more what the idea with the film would be, following different people who represent Comic-Con into this pop culture Mecca and telling the story of it through their eyes, so we told Joss, and Joss was like, 'I love it – I'm in!' Then I went right to meet my friend who's on the board of trustees, the board of directors for Comic-Con and that's when he said, 'Listen, we've said no to this to probably 25 people over the last two decades - But this time it just might work.'
I've done about ten Comic-Cons, both as a fan and as press, and even I had some revelations watching this movie. What were some of your revelations?
Well, I think the biggest surprise for me was Comic-Con as geek job fair, which I had no idea. You had this idea of it just being geek trade show versus geek job fair, so you go there and it's not just people trying to sell you swag and the next new thing that's coming out – the next new trinket, the next new toy or whatever it is – but it's people who are going there with their wares to say, 'I'm worthy – Please let me be a part of this cool thing that I've loved since I was a kid.' Whether you're [aspiring comic book artists] Eric Henson or Skip Harvey, who are coming in with their portfolios and trying to get a job at a Marvel or a DC or a Dark Horse, or someone like Holly Conrad who's coming in with her costumes and competing in the masquerade, saying, 'I want to use this as a calling card to get me into really being a professional.' So, for me, that was really eye-opening.
You zeroed on the heart of Comic-Con: the people who make it happen. Were you tempted to include anything on the sort of politics of Comic-Con, the overwhelming presence of the Hollywood studios marketing their product and that sort of thing?
Well, we touch on it. You hear Kevin Smith and Joss Whedon talk about it. You hear Harry Knowles allude to it where he talks about how it's not just so much about comics anymore, but for me I feel like the studios get so much play already. That gets attention, but that's not what the majority of Comic-Con is. That's what gets covered in the press because that's where the big stars show up. That's where Schwarzenegger or Angelina Jolie or whoever walks into Hall H and people go crazy. What gets press? Big star names get press, but that's not what Comic-Con is. That's not where the majority of the people spend Comic-Con. Hall H is 6,000 people. There's a 144,000 other people that aren't in Hall H.
How were you able to shoot a film like this for a particular audience, but also make it so universal that you're able to put the film out there for regular people, too?
I think the biggest thing, which I try to do with a lot of my work because I think you can track a much bigger audience by making something that's entertaining, I feel like if you can make someone laugh, make someone listen…I think there's a tremendous amount of humor and heart within this film. I think what this film also does very well, rather than other films in the past that looked at Cons or obsessive fans or whatever, is it humanizes everyone in this movie. Every character that we follow in this film is incredibly human. There's something very relatable. You start rooting for Holly. You're rooting for [fan couple] James Darling and Se Young. You're wanting [Mile High Comics owner] Chuck Rozanski to make it for his business. You really start caring for these people and that's something that you normally never get and I think that makes a very different film and a different experience. I think that makes it a lot more accessible.
Was there any pressure for you to be in the picture, given your profile in your previous projects?
No. There were people, investors, when we were chasing money to make the movie, who said, 'We're not going to give you the money if you're not in it.' I was like, 'Great – then don't give me the money.' I told my partner Jeremy, 'We'll find someone to fund this movie.' I said, 'I really believe that.' We probably met with four or five different financiers where that was their holdout. They said 'Well, we'll do it, but you have to be in the film,' all of them. I was like, 'Absolutely not.' Then finally when we met Thomas Tull, the CEO of Legendary Pictures, the guy who is the king of genre movies right now, and I said, 'Here's what the film is about.' Thomas also produced 'It Might Get Loud,' and so I knew that he liked documentaries. I had just read an article about him in 'Wired' magazine where there was a full-page profile of Thomas and I said, 'I want to meet Thomas Tull.' I said, 'He will get this movie.' Nobody does it better or bigger than him. I went and met with him, and he said yes in his office. He goes, 'I am in.' He goes, 'I'll find some other people to come in with me. We'll find the funds for the movie, but I'm tell you right now that I'm in.' I said, 'I'm not going to be in the film.' He said, 'Great. I'm in.'
It’s quite amazing that the stories of all the people you follow in the film worked out in such interesting ways.
And there were people that we followed that didn't! We followed about ten people in there. Alodia Gosiengfiao was one of the people that we followed – the cosplayer who's so fantastically cosplayed up, the Filipino girl. Her story is amazing, but it just didn't work in the context of our film. She's a professional cosplayer. She gets flown around the world to show up and look bananas. She's walking around in her Witchblade costume and she looks amazing. She looks like an anime character, and that's her full time job. And then we followed a guy and his sister. We were filming in Colombia, South America, and they were launching a comic book around a hero folklore, this slave who kind of broke free and basically started to free his people. They made a comic book about this guy, so they invested all their money into this comic book. They mortgaged their house, and they said, 'We need to find someone who can help us distribute this in the States so we can get into the Latin American market there. The only chance for us to do that is to go to Comic-Con.' They basically got their passes to Comic-Con, got a booth at Comic-Con and then the day before they were supposed to fly his visa still hadn't shown up. So the sister flew there and was trying to navigate the waters, but without her brother, who's the passion – It was his business. He was the one that wanted to do this more than anything, and without him there it lost a catalyst. So it was interesting watching her trying to figure it out and talking to him on the phone, but had he been there it would've just been a different story. That was the hard part – we shot with her all the way to the end and then even followed her home, but it just didn't blossom. It was sad seeing her try to hustle and pull it together and not be able to, and then make some connections where she could, but it never felt cohesive.
You've made quite a name for yourself as a documentary filmmaker, but do you want to break out of that and do narrative films?
Oh, yeah. We're right now in development and preproduction on a narrative film that – knock on wood – we'll be shooting this summer. We're doing a rewrite on the script right now. It's more of a thriller in the line of like 'The Insider' or 'Erin Brockovich,' 'A Civil Action,' those types of the little man fighting the good fight. So that'll happen this year.
What about having a sci-fi film or a superhero movie in you?
I SO do! 'Scanners' was the movie that made me want to make movies. I love horror films. I grew up loving horror films. I think that I'd love to make a horror film next. There's one that we talked about that we pitched that people are liking. If that happens it'd be amazing. It is more like sci-fi/horror.